What is the Difference Between Differentiation, Individualized Instruction, and Personalized Learning?

by | Jan 25, 2021


As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, increasingly more schools have adopted a blended learning strategy to prevent lapses in instruction when students cannot attend school in-person. Last week, we published an article explaining how a blended learning strategy supports instructional approaches like differentiation, individualized instruction, and personalized learning. But what do these terms actually mean, and how do these instructional approaches benefit students?

Definitions of Differentiation, Individualized Instruction, and Personalized Learning

In 2018, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) published an article explaining the subtle differences and similarities between differentiation, individualized instruction, and personalized learning. Let us take a look at the definitions for each term, plus some examples of how each approach to learning can be incorporated into a blended learning strategy.

What is Differentiated Instruction?

ISTE defines differentiation as “a type of learning where instruction is tailored to meet the learning needs, preferences and goals of individual students.”

Most schools and districts follow prescribed learning standards or objectives that all general education students must meet by the end of each grade level. However, teachers do not need to teach all students with the exact same lectures, classroom activities, or assignments in order to reach these standards. In fact, evidence suggests that differentiated instruction can promote a deeper understanding of the curriculum and higher student achievement.

Example of Differentiation in Blended Learning

Station rotation is one common differentiation model that can work both in a traditional classroom and through blended learning. Dr. Kara B. Douma, a supervisor of English Language Arts, wrote a blog for Edutopia outlining four examples of stations that teachers can incorporate into their blended learning plan:

  1. Virtual Independent Practice — Students use a virtual learning platform to complete independent learning activities. At the end of each activity, they can get “immediate feedback upon completion signifying progress on the standards.”
  2. Non-Virtual Independent Practice — Students work independently with non-virtual learning materials, such as books, journals, and art projects so that they can get a break from screens.
  3. Teacher-Led Station — The teacher can work with students one-on-one or in small groups to observe students work through a learning activity. The teacher can provide real-time feedback to support student work. This station can be hosted in-person, virtually, or through a mixed group.
  4. Collaborative Learning — Students work together in a small group (in-person, virtually, or through a mixed group) to learn together as a group.

Check out our recent article for more information about how school leaders can support differentiated instruction through virtual learning, especially through the COVID-19 pandemic.

What is Individualized Instruction?

ISTE explains that “[i]f differentiation is the ‘how’ then individualization is the ‘when.’ The academic goals, in this case, remain the same for a group of students, but individual students can progress through the curriculum at different speeds, based on their own particular learning needs.”

Example of Individualized Instruction in Blended Learning

Kareem Farah, a former teacher and current Executive Director of The Modern Classrooms Project, wrote a blog for Edutopia explaining how teachers at his school support individualized learning:

  • Teachers create “bite-sized” instructional videos and supplemental learning materials in preparation for the upcoming learning unit.
  • Students are given clear deadlines for completing the lessons in each learning unit but complete the required activities at their own pace.
  • With this self-paced model, students can only move on to the next lesson after they demonstrate mastery of the previous lesson.

Another Explanation of Individualized Learning

Understood offers another perspective on individualized learning: While differentiation “is a teaching method for groups of students,” individualized instruction “starts with the needs of the one student.”

Understood uses an Individualized Education Program (IEP) as an example of an individualized instructional approach. IEPs are created for students with special needs, including students with disabilities. They help caregivers, educators, and support professionals know a student’s abilities and challenges, set specific learning goals, and provide services and aids based on their needs.

What is Personalized Learning?

ISTE explains the key difference between individualized instruction and personalized learning: “Unlike individualized instruction, personalized learning involves the student in the creation of learning activities and relies more heavily on a student’s personal interests and innate curiosity.”

Example of Personalized Learning in Blended Learning

Robyn Howton, a teacher who helped develop the Blueprint for Personalized Learning in Delaware, wrote a blog for ISTE, sharing advice on how to build personalized learning plans for students.

In her classroom, “[c]lass often starts with a mini lesson, which then flows into students making choices about what they need to do next to meet specific learning targets aligned to the standards.” Her students are able to “choose their own learning pathways and complete the activities in the order that makes the most sense to them.”

For example, students can choose to:

  • Read a short story (in a physical book or on a digital device) or read along as they listen to an audiobook version of the story.
  • Take notes and journal about their thoughts in a traditional notebook or with a digital program.
  • Demonstrate their understanding of a topic “by writing a traditional essay, creating a website, creating infographics, writing a script for a video that they then record or via a communication tool they suggest.”

How to Incorporate Differentiation, Individualized Instruction, and Personalized Learning Into Your Blended Learning Strategy

Blended learning is still a relatively new concept for many school leaders. Below, we have compiled some helpful articles that offer a basic introduction to blended learning.

However, we also know every student body has unique needs. We would love to talk with your leadership team about the best-blended learning approach for your students and teachers. Schedule a free call with one of our education experts to build a blended learning and professional development strategy with the Center for Student Achievement Solutions.

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